I have been asked to write about my parents James Elmer McGee & Belva Atossa Armstrong and their life together.
My father was known as Elmer though many people called him by his nickname ‘Jockey’ The name was given to him by friends when he had his 1st horse at 15 or 16 years of age. An older man stopped him in the road and asked him if he’d like to trade-after some talk they did. The other man bragged about beating this kid-the older man got a fine looking horse but most of them knew Dads horse ‘heaves’ (a lung problem so he could only go at a slow walk.)
My mother was known as Belle by nearly everyone as I remember; her half sister Iva called her Belva.
Only two of my children can remember my father at all-the oldest Sharon was not quite 7 years when he died at age 69 in McPherson hospital in Howell-following a 2 year heart condition. Patti was 3 years-Linda 1.5 and Nancy on the way.
My mother was rather tall 5”7’ and slim. She had very long & thick black hair. [Russell being the only child to get her type of hair]. She could easily sit on her braid. The McGee’s were somewhat short & stocky. She was born on a 40 acre farm near Leslie, Michigan. Her father, much older than her mother, died when she was 12 & her only brother 2 years. Her mother remarried-at the time my parents married she had a half sister Iva. They remained close till her death. Aunt Iva & I wrote to each other.
I’m remembering what my mother had told me about the early days of her & fathers life. She & Dad met at a Christian Endeavor meeting (youth group) at the local church where she lived near Leslie, Michigan. Dad would have been working somewhere nearby-perhaps for a farmer or as a carpenter at a sawmill. He started walking her home.
Mother was 15 years; Dad was 19 years at that time. They soon decided to be married, live with her mother and stepfather on the 40 acre farm that belonged to her mother as the widow of John Winter Armstrong. Her mother was not ready to lose her. She would make special effort to learn housekeeping. They were married June 22, 1898 just after my fathers 20th birthday (June 15, 1878) and & weeks before her 16th birthday (September 04, 1883). Mom said she would get married only if a minister performed the ceremony, no city hall for her.
They stayed with her family for a short time, but mother soon wanted her own place and more privacy. The family household had 6 people. Her mother, stepfather, 6 year old brother Ray and half sister Iva. My father had money in the bank, $100.00, his own horse and buggy. Dad could always get work. They stayed with his sister & husband Grace & Winfield Hath and their son Jerome for a short time. They then moved to a tenant house belonging to John Norton where he worked by the year. They had garden space-eggs and fresh meat during winter-chicken whatever produce from the farm plus his wages.
Dad liked to hunt and always had a shotgun and rifle. Let me say here that he had no patience with careless handling of guns–never a loaded gun inside a building. In fact, he had little patience with one not assuming responsibility. Which made it hard for him when his sons were growing up. I think he expected them to grow up faster (as he had to) than they could. They were many places to hunt as Dad was well liked and knew many people.
They were married a bit past 4 years before the 1st child, my brother, William Leland was born. September 3rd, 1904. Joseph Ross was next (named after a Uncle & cousin). Before the third son James Marshall was born they had moved to another farm owned by a well-to-do farmer John Donahue-a very caring and helpful catholic family who would end up being life long friends.
From there they moved to Gregory, Michigan where Dad had lived as a young boy into his teenage years. Here he worked as a carpenter and other work when available. Hunted in the winter. He helped build the hardware store that still stands today.
This must have been a good time for them. Dads oldest brother and family were nearby, Uncle Charles and Aunt Maggie (Margaret) and 4 children. A sister Mina Wilhelmina married to William Cone and their 7 children also lived close. Nephew Don McCorney & wife Adelaide (Plummer) lived in town. Don was the barber in Gregory for many years. Don was the son of Aunt Alma. Don cut Mom’s hair after making her sit for an hour and think about what she was actually doing. He really did not want to cut her beautiful hair.
Mom was very well liked by all Dads family and they were very dear to her. She really honed her housekeeping skills with direction from Dads sisters. They all helped each other. One time when Mother was sick and staying in bed Aunt Maggie came to help out. Dad stayed home-thought it would be a good time to catch up on chores around the house. Aunt Maggie put up with it for a bit then went outside and yelled “First you pound on one side of the house, then you go to the other side and pound. If you want to pound go over in the woods and pound.” Mother knew he was just wanting to stay close and still keep busy.
Those were good years for them, Mother joined ‘Macabees’ and enjoyed the meeting & the money making projects they did. They also had speakers on current events.
Both Mom & Dad had good voices and liked to sing. Dads brother, Uncle Colb and Aunt Julia (Caskie) were the same. They did more with plays etc…They had one child Joseph Ross. Mom got a 5 string banjo so she could chord, Dad and Uncle Colb would play the harmonica-everyone would sing-little ones could stay up late, usually till we went to sleep standing up. This continued for years even after we moved to the farm and Colb & Julia had moved to Lansing, Michigan. Cousin Ross was grown by then and back from France. Thanks be to God. The 1st time I ever remember seeing cousin Ross he came and left before Dad returned home. I ran down the road to meet Dad and as soon as he put me in the wagon I told him about the tall man coming & that Mamma had hugged and kissed him. If Ross had been in uniform I might have known him since we had a nice picture of him.
At that time they lived in a small house that had been the Gregory school. Russell Elmer was born there and a girl Wilma Ione. She lived only 6 weeks due to spina bifida. That was very hard for all of them, but when my brother Guy Carlton was born well & strong he was loved and much as could be and stayed at home longer than any of us no getting married till he was in his late 30’s.
They then sold that place and rented from a neighbor across the road (Jim Stackable) where I Adelaide Norrine and my sister Mina (Wilhelmina) were born. From there we moved to a rented farm on Spears Road-toward Pinckney. Dad had bought 2 teams of horses while still in the school house. Here they also had some cows, chickens and rabbits. They raised hay & grain for the stock. In the summertime he also worked helping to build roads. He was paid for his work plus use of his teams and wagons. My brother Milton Ray (Jack) was born while we lived here.
The owners wanted the place back so they moved again to what was known as the Hemingway Place. That was on the Arnold road next to the Donahue farm.
I was 4 years at that time.(which would make my oldest brother Lee 16 years) The Donahue were wonderful neighbors and friends. The unmarried daughter Nellie would often have Mina and I stay overnight for as long as we felt comfortable. Her brother John L always told us he had a wooden leg and would let us punch it. That is until Nellie gave us each a pin that was when the game ended no more punching or kicking his leg. Mr. Donahue helped pack the wagons when we moved. He also held the mortgage when they bought the old Enoch Burden farm (240 acres) in Marion Township where Dad began farming in earnest and Fred was born. Dad also worked changing the Pingree Road from dirt to gravel. He had 2 teams & wagons going-one with no driver-the horses knew the way and what they were supposed to do. He took good care of his horses. They were washed down each night. We young children would see them go past the house. Russell and Colb had a job as water boys. Russell quit soon, Colb stayed on the rest of the summer.
Dad bought more milking cows and started selling milk. That made more work for Mother-washing more milk pails. Later there was a milking machine (powered by gasoline motor) and cram separator. I can’t remember the year that buyer’s came from the State of New York to buy Dad’s Holstein Milker’s, the price was just too good to turn down. After that they never had the nice looking herd again but to sell milk I don’t think it mattered. He bought Jersey’s and we made butter again.
Mother did more than her share what with canning, baking bread and washing with her Maytag Washing machine. Mina & I learned from her. She was a very good seamstress also and made many of our clothes–even the smaller boys shirts etc. Another thing she did that we all enjoyed was read out loud. She always told stories or read or sang to all of her children. She had elocution training lessons as a child so it was a pleasure to listen to her speak. Winter evenings were when we enjoyed that the most. In summer there were other things to occupy our time what with the long daylight evenings. In winter dishes were out of the way, fudge and popcorn made–apples brought up from the cellar–everyone ready for bed. The old books–Last of the Mohicans, Lena Rivers, Zane Grey, stories & lots of magazines–Country Gentleman, Woman’s Home Companion–always plenty of reading material. Daily & Weekly newspapers, Saturday Evening Post–how I wish I had those old covers…Norman Rockwell…
We would take turns combing & brushing Mother’s long hair and someone else would massage her feet. We played cards, checkers and other games. Dad taught me Euchre without looking at his cards and beat me every time for awhile. Bedtime was 9:30–10:00 at the latest.
When Edison put in rural lines the free service ended at the farm north of us, so Dad had to pay for the poles to be installed. That made things easier in many ways. No more hand pumping water for stock to drink & cold milk etc. was now available.
June 1926 there was a fire starting at the north end of the big barn and quickly spread to the horse barn. It was after milking. Ross & Colb were the only older boys big enough to help. Dad & Ross drove the cows from the barnyard right over the fence since there was no gate on that side into an open field. The horses were already at pasture. Dad and the boys went into the horse barn grabbed what harnesses and whatever they could and had to go out the other end–they would not have made it out the front. An equipment shed was also lost, but the granary & chicken coup no entirely destroyed. The granary was also where Dad kept all his carpentry tools, some were burned.
There was no phone but the neighbor to the south of us (John Wylie) had one so called ‘central’ in Pinckey & was relayed to Gregory. Of course smoke brought many people. Aunt Mina yelled to Uncle Will “Elmer’s burning barns lets go.”
There was lumber piled behind the chicken coop. Stanchions had to be built to hold cows for milking in the morning—Just out in the open.
Very early Sunday morning Mr. Henry Howlett (owner of the hardware store in town) arrived at our place with all kinds of tools, nails and many other things that Dad might need and said “We will talk later, bring back anything you don’t need.” He had been Dads mentor since Dad was a teenager and was dearly loved. Later when Mr. Howlett was our state representative he was killed when the Hotel Olds in Lansing burned. Colb went to Gregory the morning after the fire and heard the bad news. He told me sometime later, that was the only time he ever saw Dad cry. It was a great loss to many people.
The barn was rebuilt as quickly as possible, under Dads direction. Workers were paid from insurance money. Supplies on credit. Ross was home as much as possible and helped with the farm work. Lee, Jim & Russell came when they could. Aunt Mina was there often helping Mother.
One day Dad happened to see the dog, getting eggs from a nest on the ground. He threw a hammer at the dog, and as he moved forward he stepped on a board with a nail sticking up–so he was going to the Doctor and on crutches for awhile. But work went on.
It was a hot dry summer. Many fires of unknown origin. A week later neighbors on the road west of us lost their home & life of small girl child. It was a sad neighborhood.
At one point Doctors thought it best that Mother rest as much as possible. That is when Mina & I took over, with Mother to coach us we did very well for two young girls. We baked bread twice a week, Tuesday and Saturday, 8 loaves & a large pan of buns each time. We did the canning–best I remember– 150 quarts of tomatoes, 50 quarts of chili sauce. Lots of corn and beans (green & yellow) and lots of catsup. All done cold pack in hot water bath in the boiler. Lots of pickles bread & butter, Dills & mustard pickles and of course jellies and jams. In the winter canned beef & mince meat, sometimes wild rabbit or pheasant. Sauerkraut in a 5 gallon crock. We had much help from Dad & the boys as they could give. I don’t think either of us had regrets about that time. The family was close and it was just something that needed to be done and we all knew and felt our efforts were appreciated. Also Aunt Mina was able to come for a day or maybe do some sewing that we couldn’t. She was a very good seamstress, really could, “make a silk purse of of a sows ear.” So many of Dads family gave mother a helping hand when it was needed. Often just a good visit from Aunt Grace or Agnes.
After Mother was better and able to do more I went to Detroit to work. Mina wasn’t ready to be away from home so much for a few years. She was in Detroit from about 1940 and stayed through 1946 when she was married. At that time she went back to Gregory to help out for a few days and never left. Her husband Oliver came on the weekends and stayed with his Mother during the week.
Dad never bought a tractor. So when He & Mother decided to sell the farm and move back to Gregory they held an auction. They had horses, cattle and an assortment of things to get rid of.
The house in Gregory had been purchased a few years earlier and rented out till they needed it themselves. It is located on Bullis street next door to Aunt Mina, Dads sister.
By the time they moved back to Gregory, Colb was the only one of us children living at home. He married and moved to Dexter in 1946. Mother remarked they were afraid the neighbors would talk. So there was only the two of them. Mother had been a semi invalid from arthritis since 1934.
In October of 1929 I had surgery for appendicitis. Jack a year later. After that Dr. Claude Sigler told Dad he checked the bean stack to see if it was a good enough crop to do another surgery. The Doctor had known the family for many years. I think Aunt Mina & Agnes & Addie were in school with him. He told me one time they used to tease Addie when they had ‘relaxing time’ by singing ‘Addie McGee was ahead of me when I was in the army’ I think the right words were ‘Biddy McGee’ not sure. Then Father Doctor Fred told me if I was as good a girl as my Aunt Adelaide I’d not have any trouble.
In 1936 I decided to take a class in interior Decorating at Detroit Art Institute in the old Metropolitan Building. Which was located back of J L Hudson on John R. I worked nights at Adcraft Sales, a screen process shop. Nice foreman, Cal Hill, let me go to an evening class once a week taught by Baird Adams. Anyway Adcraft was where I met Art Pyden. He stayed in screen printing till his retirement in 1976. Except for a brief time at Republic Aircraft Plant during World War II. We started dating (he was catholic) and by August 1937 I had decided I wanted to take instruction in Catholic faith. I talked to Mother & Dad–no problem their. I did not want to continue seeing him if I didn’t want to be Catholic. We became engaged at Thanksgiving and married June 25, 1938, at Saint Cecilia on Livernois in Detroit, Michigan.
Jack & Leona (Jaynes) were married in July 1940 she was catholic. Fred & Millie (Rieman) also catholic were married while he was in the Army in September of 1943. I don’t think any of the family had thought it a problem. Then in 1952 (I think) Mother decided to take instruction. She died May 30, 1963.
Dad continued to be busy after they moved to Gregory. He was always needed somewhere–at the blacksmith shop–he knew how to do most things and if they were busy and he was in a hurry he could fix whatever he needed himself. He sometimes worked at the lumber yard. His hunting buddies were always ready to go whenever they could. If he wasn’t working he would find something to do outside-he loved the outdoors so much. One summer he got a friend to go with him to burn out worm nests from trees along the roadsides. (Maybe he wouldn’t be allowed to do that now–I wonder–would he be taking someone’s job?) He had a thing about trees. Mother said to one time on the farm “Oh your Dad would never disturb a tree if it wasn’t really necessary.” After they were in Gregory some man was looking for Oak Trees and offered him $250.00 for one in the front yard. Mother guessed he thought Dad would be grateful to get all that cash. But no way would he let that tree go and she would have been upset if he had. I always felt they knew so much and had such “Common Sense”.
At this time the year 2000 only myself and Jack Milton Ray are still living.
Note: This piece was written by my maternal grandmother Adelaide Norrine Pyden. She was 86 when she wrote this. She passed in 2006 at the age of 92. The file was originally done on a Mac. Only errors occurring due to conversion to Microsoft Word have been edited.